So tonight at Brown University, the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center and the Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Relationship Abuse sponsored a talk from artist Emma Sulkowicz, whose senior thesis art project at Columbia has made major waves in the discussion of rape in our society. With the performance piece “Carry That Weight”, Sulkowicz must keep with her a mattress like the one she was allegedly* raped on at the start of her sophomore year at all times when on the campus of Columbia. You can read all about what the parameters of her performance were on several sites as I will discuss more the talk she gave tonight.
Sulkowicz didn’t divulge the nitty and gritty details of the night that provided the fuel for her art (though when she did, she refrained from being graphic), but rather the larger issues of consent and how we try to analyze rape crimes. She spoke of being a survivor and the lessons one learns in that role. One of the thoughts that I found quite profound was that survivors of rape learn that “our bodies are not always our own”. That they are instead “porous” and can be violated much more easily than we would believe.
There were times when Sulkowicz got quite academic in supporting her thoughts on the issues, and unfortunately it was in those moments that she lost me. I noticed how easily my mind wandered when she was reading some passages of someone else’s theories. What really struck me was the change when the words were hers and hers alone. The level of engagement was completely different and maybe it was just me, but I could feel the shift in the crowd as well.
Sulkowicz’s frank discussion of how this has changed her life was illuminating on the concept of consent in everyday life. That people come up to her at the bar and touch her in search of solace and solidarity, when in fact it just makes her feel trapped even further. To feel dehumanized and treated as a “healing object”. Heck, I feel completely violated when strangers touch me. I can’t even imagine how that would feel after living through something that horrific.
Emma Sulkowicz struck me as someone who will be making waves in the art world for years to come, especially if her secret next project is as powerful as this one. She’s out not to be a martyr, only to express that what she must say through her own visual vocabulary. I’m glad that she came to Providence and look forward to seeing what she’ll do next.
*I state allegedly as he was not convicted of his crimes, but something just doesn’t sit right with me being somewhat diplomatic in this way.